Stressful Schedule: The 2005 Amagasaki (Japan) Derailment

Amagasaki is a city of 456722 people (as of 2022) in central Japan, located in the Hyōgo-prefecture 7km/4.3mi west of Osaka and 21km/13mi east of Kobe (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Amagasaki in Japan.

Amagasaki lies on the Fukuchiyama-Line, a 106.5km/66mi partially double-tracked electrified main line connecting Fukuchiyama with Osaka. Opening in 1874. The line is used almost exclusively for different regional passenger services, reaching speeds of up to 120kph/75mph. As usual for Japan the line’s tracks have a 1067mm narrow gauge instead of the global standard of 1435mm. The line is owned and operated by the West Japan Railway company (JR West), a private rail service provider and infrastructure owner founded in 1987 when Japan privatized and sectioned its railway system.

Just north of Amagasaki station the rail line runs in a wide right hand turn (travelling north to south), the resulting “wedge” of open space was filled by a multi-story apartment building in 2002, named “Effusion Amagasaki”.

The site of the accident seen from above in 2003, the large apartment-building that was struck by the train is easily spotted.

Train number 5418M was a regional commuter-service heading southbound through Amagasaki on its way from Takarazuka to Doshisha-mae. On the day of the accident the service was provided by a JR-West series 207, a three-to-seven-car electric multiple unit introduced in 1991. A seven-car train (as was involved in the accident) measures 140m/460ft in length at an empty weight of 213 metric tons. The trains are capable of reaching 120kph/75mph and were made 484 times between 1991 and 2003. An end-car can hold 50 sitting and 100 standing passengers while the middle cars, not having a control cab, can hold 58 seated and 105 standing passengers. 5418M was a rapid service with a reduced number of stops and carried approximately 660 people at the time of the accident.

A series 207 EMU identical to the one involved in the accident, photographed in October 2005.

On the 25th of April 2005 5418M is travelling southbound towards Amagasaki at 120kph/75mph. The train, driven by 23 years old Mister Takami, is approximately 60 seconds behind schedule as it passes Tsukaguchi station, 1km/0.6mi up the line from the site of the accident. JR West put incredible focus on punctuality, with commuters relying on near-perfect timing to make transfers between trains. It’s common for trains to arrive at a station just as a different line’s train arrives across the platform, allowing riders to transfer while keeping the trains stopped for the shortest possible time. Heading to Amagasaki the schedule allowed for 28 seconds of delay on a fifteen minute journey.

At 9:18am 5418M passes under the Meishin Expressway, survivors will later say it felt like the train was going faster than usual. Heading into a long right hand turn just 100m/328ft past the overpass physics take their toll on the excessive speed of the train as the leading car leans to the left and derails. As the leading car turns over wheels from the leading bogie cut an overhead wire support pole in half with the train going off the tracks on its side at 116kph/72mph. The speed limit for the turn would have been 70kph/43.5mph. The train crashes through the wall of the adjacent apartment building, destroying several parked cars as the leading train car smashes through a garage. The second car jackknives during the derailment, hitting the wall of the house almost perfectly sideways before being crushed by the third and fourth car hitting it. The fifth to seventh car remain largely upright and aligned, partially passing the wreckage before coming to a stop. Mister Takami is killed on impact with the house, 106 of his passengers die in the ensuing carnage as well. 562 people are injured. No one survives in the leading two cars, both of which suffer a total loss of survival space.

The rear of the train crosses into the oncoming tracks, creating a short-circuit and turning the signals red. At the same time a local resident sees the crash happen and uses an emergency button at a nearby level crossing to similarly trigger a stop-order. Both measures allow an oncoming train to perform an emergency stop, ending up approximately 50m/165ft from the wreckage. Residents of the involved and surrounding houses are the first to tend to the passengers of the train, followed a few minutes later by professional responders. The damage to the second car and its position as well as that of the first car’s remains were as such that responders initially thought they were dealing with a six-car train, only realizing where the actual leading car had gone significantly later. However, with the leading car suffering damage putting it beyond recognition it’s assumed that no one aboard could have been saved anyway.

The remains of the leading car after being dragged from the house.

Local ambulances were immediately overwhelmed, leading to police cars, privately owned cars and even flatbed trucks being used to transport survivors to hospitals. The Japanese Self Defense Force (Army) was called in to help pick the wreckage apart, but due to leaking fuel from the cars in the garage no tools that created fire or sparks could be used, reducing their effectiveness and leading to the soldiers soon being withdrawn. All in all over 1000 responders were involved with the rescue and recovery of survivors and victims. A nearby hospital in Osaka which is owned by JR West caused a scandal when they refused to accept any survivors, first claiming they were too far away and, when it was pointed out that hospitals further away took survivors, said they simply weren’t an emergency hospital.

A responder examining the interior of the train.

Originally it was suspected that the train might have derailed after hitting a car parked on the tracks, a theory mostly based on the remains of a car being found between the front of the leading car and the far wall of the garage. This theory was disproven when responders tracked down a resident of the apartment building who identified the remains as his car, which had been parked in the garage in a position where the train struck it and then carried it across the length of the garage. Interviews with survivors as well as examinations of the train and data from its journey before the accident ended up supporting the overspeed-theory, aided by the control system in the affected area only stopping trains on red signals, not for simply going too fast. Records showed that 25 minutes before the derailment Takami had run a red signal at low speed, causing an emergency stop before he could back up to the platform. He had also overshot the correct stopping position at Itami station, four minutes before the accident, requiring him to back the train up again. The two incidents had resulted in a delay of approximately 90 seconds. The data-logger in the rear car (which was newer and equipped with more technology than the leading car had been)also showed odd/insecure brake-application at various stations.

Responders scaling the wreckage of the train.

Ten months before the crash Takami had overshot a platform by 100m/328ft, causing him to be forced to face JR West’s harsh penalty and “retraining” system (named “Nikkin Kyoiku”, “Dayshift Education”). Punishments involved financial penalties, minor and arguably humiliating tasks like grass-cutting and cleaning as well as verbal humiliation. It was clearly more aimed at punishment than training, with some experts calling it psychological torture. A common example of the work train drivers have to perform is is sitting in the middle of the shift-room, in clear view of all coworkers, and having to spend several days copying rules and the company philosophy by hand, only being allowed to leave the table when they get permission to go to the toilet (which they might have to clean, too).

The investigation assumed that Takami was scared of having to go through the program again if he accumulated excessive delays, choosing to break the speed limit trying to cut down on his delay. He had also asked the conductor at Itami station to under-report the severity of his error. Furthermore, as he approached the turn he apparently realized his mistake, but only tried slowing down with the regular brake. It’s assumed that he chose not to trigger an emergency stop as this would have required justification, again leading to retraining if the justification was inadequate. Minding the high pressure and harsh character of repercussions for even minor errors the report still blamed the accident on Takami’s excessive speed, but named the “retraining” as a major contributing factor. Minor contributing factors were the old control system in use in the area, which didn’t control a train’s speed, as well as the close proximity between train tracks and houses caused by the lack of space and high trust in railway engineering common in Japan.

Responders working on cars 2–4, the position of which completely hid car 1.

The report closes with the recommendation to revamp retraining-programs to actually improve the employee’s training rather than being pure punishment, as well as recommending to upgrade all train control systems to a standard that can limit a train’s speed regardless of the driver’s input. In June 2005 Masataka Ide, JR West’s adviser who played a major role in enforcing the incredible punctuality, resigned, followed by the company’s chairman in August. On the 19th of June 2005 the rail line was repaired and reopened under a lowered speed limit, trains now enter the turn at just 60kph/37mph while the long straight ahead of the turn is limited to 95kph/59mph instead of 120kph/75mph. Lastly, on the 26th of December, Takeshi Kakiuchi resigned as the president of JR West in a move widely seen as an acceptance of responsibility.

By 2008 an article in the Daily Yomiuri, one of Japan’s main newspapers, stated that survivors still struggle with mental and physical consequences of the accident. It was found out that various survivors, responders, relatives and residents of the house had sought professional help after developing symptoms of PTSD. None of the residents returned to their homes after the accident cleanup was finished.

Cranes removing one of the rear cars from the site.

In July 2009 Masao Yamazaki, former vice-president and then-president of JR West was charged with negligence, announcing his resignation on the same day. He was found not guilty in January 2012, with the court saying there was no personal criminal negligence on his part, but JR West as a whole being very much to blame for poor employee treatment and faulty risk assessment regarding the stretch of track where the accident occurred. The curve had since been upgraded to a control system that monitored the speed, catching eleven overspeed-incidents in just a few months. Putting the upgrade-work on the back-burner was thus deemed negligent. Today the accident still takes a prominent place in the Japanese railway industry, with the report being linked on JR West’s homepage at a link reading “We will never forget the Amagasaki rail crash we caused on 25 April 2005”. At 107 victims it is Japan’s second-worst railway accident since the Tsurumi Train Collision which killed 162 people in 1963.

The site of the accident seen from above today.

Most of the apartment-building was demolished in 2017, a small section including the smashed-through garage wall was left standing, forming part of a memorial under a sweeping canopy.

The damaged corner of the apartment building, now part of the accident’s memorial.

PBS published “Brakeless”, a documentary about the accident and the company culture that contributed to it, in 2014. Furthermore, National Geographic’s “Seconds From Disaster” covered the accident in Season 6, Episode 5:

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